USF joins exclusive club with invitation to top-tier university group

Membership in the prestigious American Association of Universities had been a major goal for years.
The University of South Florida was invited this week to join the Association of American Universities, a feat described as a major milestone by school officials.
The University of South Florida was invited this week to join the Association of American Universities, a feat described as a major milestone by school officials. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published June 1, 2023|Updated June 1, 2023

The University of South Florida announced Thursday it has achieved one of its major goals, more than 15 years in the making: joining the invitation-only Association of American Universities, a group of top-tier research schools.

The university became the second public school in the state to be invited to the 71-member association, joining the University of Florida. School officials wasted little time in accepting.

USF was one of six schools to receive invitations, including the University of Miami. Previously, only four universities had been invited to join over the past decade.

Invitations are extended based on many factors, including graduation rates, research activity, faculty excellence and the number of low-income students receiving federal Pell grants.

“This is a historic and momentous achievement for USF,” university President Rhea Law said in a news release. “Especially when considering we were founded in 1956, to now officially be recognized by our peers as one of America’s leading research universities is a shining example of our university community’s determination, innovative spirit and relentless pursuit of excellence.”

The release said joining the association will allow USF to grow its research profile, putting researchers in a more competitive position to gain funding and help the school in recruiting “additional world-class faculty and students to the Tampa Bay region.”

Researchers at schools in the association perform 63% of the total amount of federally funded research, the release said.

In a message to the university community, Law credited those who came before her for setting the membership goal. She was a member of the board of trustees when it first became a USF priority 16 years ago.

“We earned this distinction because of the determination and relentless pursuit of excellence by our outstanding students, faculty, staff, alumni and other supporters,” she wrote.

She also thanked former USF President Judy Genshaft and former provost Ralph Wilcox for setting the “bold aspirations.”

At a news conference, Law said Wilcox approached her in 2007, saying joining the association would be the “pinnacle of academic excellence” and the board decided to go after it. Since then, she said, they haven’t taken the pedal off.

Law addressed a roomful of attendees that included Genshaft, Wilcox, former USF President Betty Castor, founding USF board chairperson Dick Beard, Board of Governors member Ken Jones, State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues and former House Speaker Chris Sprowls. She thanked the former leaders and others, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, for helping in the effort.

Faculty Senate President Jenifer Jasinski Schneider said she was shocked by the announcement because, despite the gains the university had made, Florida schools often operate with fewer resources than others.

The news, she said, came as a pleasant surprise during a time of low faculty morale over recent initiatives by DeSantis and the Florida Legislature to regulate classroom content and make it easier for faculty to lose their tenure status.

“This is not a reaction to or an indication of support for what’s currently happening,” Jasinski Schneider said. “This is not something that happens overnight, and certainly not something that’s happened since January.... This is an indicator of what we were saying — like ‘What are you guys doing? There’s nothing broken here.’”

Jasinski Schneider said the recognition is a sign of USF’s growing status.

“There’s nothing you can manipulate to make us AAU,” she said. “That prestige also puts us in the room when big conversations are happening across the prestigious universities in the U.S. and Canada.”

Tim Boaz, past president of the faculty senate, said the announcement could be “a game-changer” for attracting faculty during a time when colleagues are having trouble filling positions. “The timing couldn’t be better,” he said. “I think we really needed something like this.”

Wilcox, who recalled first discussing membership in the association with former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, said every great city is tied to a great research university.

“Some didn’t believe it was achievable,” he said. “But here we are. We’re associated with the creme de la creme.”